TUCSON. Ariz. — Arizona coach Sean Miller warns those who will listen: "It’s not like we’re broke going into the Pac-12 tournament."
But even if the Wildcats aren’t broke, there are still issues to be addressed as the postseason begins.
Foremost among those areas of maintenance are turnovers and free throws. The Wildcats have been OK in the turnover department for most of the season (10.5 per game), but free throws (66 percent) have been a trouble spot all season long. Both concerns reared their ugly heads in last week’s road trip to Oregon that resulted in a narrow win at Oregon State and a loss to Oregon.
Then again, Miller tempered his analysis with this thought: Arizona has lost just three times, so some perspective is in order.
"We had some insane moments in the Oregon game," Miller said. "We got rattled for the first time in a long, long time."
Part of the problem against Oregon was having usually composed point guard T.J. McConnell on the bench and team leader Nick Johnson sitting right by him with two fouls.
"Sometimes when a guy has two fouls it’s not always the right thing to sit out," Miller said. "Sometimes you have to roll the dice and let them play."
That analogy seems especially appropriate for Arizona’s journey to the conference tournament in Las Vegas. While many of their Pac-12 rivals have their seasons on the line in an all-or-nothing scenario, the 28-3 Wildcats are playing with house money. They open tournament play at noon (PT) on Thursday against Utah.
But back to the other sticking point — free throws. It seems every time UA steps up to the line, it’s a game of roulette — red or black, makes or misses. It’s about the same odds.
"Eventually, if we keep shooting 50 percent from the foul line we will lose," Miller said matter of factly. "You can mask it, you can avoid it, you can talk about us getting better, but we were 11 for 19 (vs. Oregon). It’s something you don’t talk about because it seems like we are always 11 for 19. All of us are waiting for that moment where, how about 17 for 21? How good can we be if we can make some free throws?"
Of course, Miller said they will stay the course — after all, how did they win 28 games? — and try to continue to improve those free throws.
The Wildcats understand they’ll have to improve if they’re to reach their goal of a national championship. And until that happens, they will have doubters. "Even though the overall body of work is real great," Johnson said.
"There will always be doubters, no matter what," said freshman forward Aaron Gordon, who has been a major culprit in the free-throw difficulties, hitting just 44.7 percent. "LeBron (James) has doubters. He’s the greatest player and he has doubters."
Gordon said the Wildcats aren’t approaching the postseason as having to prove the doubters wrong. Instead, it’s proving to themselves that they can be the best team in the nation. Winning the Pac-12 tournament isn’t a mandatory part of that mission, but it’s a good chance to start clicking on all cylinders.
Not since 1990 has Arizona won the regular-season Pac-12 title and the conference tournament. The tournament was on hiatus from 1991 until 2002, but since its renewal, the Wildcats have twice won a regular-season title only to stumble in the tournament. Arizona has won the tournament only once — in 2004 — since it was resumed.
"Looking at our tradition here it is a little shocking that we haven’t won it (lately)," Johnson said. "We just haven’t gotten over that little hump. It’s something we want to do. We feel comfortable where we are right now."